I’ve read many conversion stories over the years and although each is unique and moving, Sally Read’s story stands out — perhaps because of the way she expresses her journey to faith. Read, a former atheist and psychiatric nurse, is a lauded British poet and lives in Italy with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. She recently spoke with me about her newly published conversion story, Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story.
How do you think being a poet affected your conversion to the Catholic faith?
It’s an interesting question because one could argue that because I’m a poet I experience life in a heightened way. I think it’s partly the case; but what really strikes me listening to others’ conversion stories is the similarities between them and I think as a poet I am able to express that, and that is the difference. For instance, my sister-in-law is a Catholic and she just read the book and said, “Wow, when you described receiving Communion I cried because that’s what I feel, but I never could have put it that way.” So I think some people can express this in a way that others can relate to.
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What were the greatest obstacles to faith for you as an atheist?
I would like to have had religion at various times of my life, but I just couldn’t see it; to me, it made no logical sense. And I didn’t have a philosophical background so it was very much about the empirical and there was no evidence and it just didn’t seem at all reasonable. So when I encountered Thomas Aquinas and his syllogisms, I found it very interesting at a philosophical level that one could argue for the existence of God. So that was one of the existential ways… I just couldn’t have faith, I never believed, and God really had to come to me for me to believe.
Also, faith and the Church were so counter-cultural… it was just provoking, and made no sense that there were no women priests and the contraception issue, and all that business…
How did your medical background affect your conversion?
When I go back to my past in the book, it’s often to my nursing years and the patients I had. In retrospect, those experiences showed me how Catholic I already was without realizing it. I think a lot of people are Catholic without realizing it. Like, when I nursed a man who was not being fed anymore, because he’d had a stroke, and it really freaked me out… The whole idea of shaving and washing someone and him not receiving food, I found extremely hard and difficult. All those patients really helped form me.
When my conversion happened I was writing about psychiatric patients in my third book of poetry called The Day Hospital — a series of dialogues, in the voices of patients. And I got to one particular patient with Alzheimer’s who had no memory, couldn’t speak, could barely walk, and I was trying to give him a voice and wondering… is there a soul? Because otherwise you’re left with nothing. It’s an existential question and it did impact my conversion and how I see people.
Your admiration and love for your father, who was an atheist, shines forth in the book; what was different about your path than his, do you think?
It’s interesting… His mother, who I mention in the book — my paternal grandmother — was really quite religious, from an Anglican background. But she had this conception of God as very scary and wrathful, and [my dad] used to really mock that. The idea of religion that was given to him was perhaps not the best, although she was a lovely woman.
Also, at the time, in Britain, religion was falling out of favor and the intellectuals were rejecting religion and looking to other ideologies, like Marxism. I can’t honestly describe my father as a Marxist, but there was a definite trend of Marxism in my broader family because if was thought that America represented the “great demon” and Russia represented something ideologically good. I remember that sense in my childhood and it’s only now that we know it was total rubbish and the Soviet Union was evil. I was told that what we were told was a pack of lies about the Soviet Union.
So I think my father grew up at a very different time. And we are two different people, of course. But I like to think that my story is a continuation of his story, and I do believe in healing the family tree and in families connecting through prayer.
You have a great respect, and even reverence, for honest atheism. How do you recommend people of faith approach or speak of faith with atheist or agnostic loved ones?
I don’t think you can proselytize; I don’t think you can try and convert people because it just gets their backs up, and you know, God doesn’t work that way. Everyone’s soul has its own journey and God intersects at the right time with that person. I think it’s about example. I think about my friend Cristina… She never tried to convert me; she really didn’t. But she was very much herself and she was very comfortable because she was a cradle Catholic… she was always talking to Jesus in the kitchen (laughs) but it wasn’t to impress me; it was just her own faith and it did impress me on a deep level without me realizing it. I think you have to live your faith in an unabashed way.
Has your conversion changed your relationship with other friends in your life who are not believers, and with family members?
I think it’s honest to say that it has. My family are really great; they’ve always stuck by me no matter what — although it was hard, particularly for my mum. But she’s been fantastic about the book, she read it and she’s very supportive. And my uncle, who I talk about in the book, he’s fine, too — he loved the book. But it has changed things with certain friends. There are some who think what’s happened is very odd and it’s very hard for them to come to grips with it.
How did motherhood transform you?
I think motherhood softened me. Because suddenly you have to think of something else apart from yourself, and it changes you so much. As I say in the book, I had the sense of myself as a kind of god with a baby inside me, so that set me off thinking about religion — although it didn’t convert me. But I think it made me understand the nature of suffering. As Catholics we talk about suffering and redemptive suffering and sacrificing for others and we mothers understand this maybe better than anyone because we have to do that from the very beginning.
What are the qualities that Fr. Gregory possessed that allowed him to be such an instrument of God for you, do you think?
It couldn’t have been anybody else, really; there were so many factors… it was like the perfect storm. I think the fact that we were the same age, so we were equal, on a level playing field. And he’s really bright — a really brilliant theologian — so whatever I threw at him he could always come back with the answer. That was very important and still is — he’s such a support to me, whatever I ask him, he can answer. But also because he didn’t try to convert me. He said “only Christ can convert you” and he let Christ do all the work in that sense. But he was very steady and never deserted me. He always answered my emails, and was always ready to talk with me.
That struck me… that you weren’t a project to him, but a person, someone with whom he had an authentic relationship with, and who he was being present to…
Absolutely. That’s very important because when I said I wanted to become a Catholic, he was completely bowled over, and I don’t think he ever saw that as the end game, really. I mean, it must have crossed his mind, but it wasn’t about getting me in and winning the battle. In his hermitage, his charism is the care of the human intellect and I was in a sense his first customer (laughs).
What did you not talk about in your book, or what was perhaps hard to write about?
Well, I did stay clear of some things. For instance, my marriage… My husband did not ask to be written about, and you don’t need to go down certain roads. So I was circumspect in certain things without being dishonest. Same thing with my mum… She didn’t ask to be brought into the book; therefore I tried to keep her out of it. And I say in the preface that it’s not a book about my whole life; it’s a conversion story. I wanted to show God’s action in my life the best way I could.
How would you describe your spirituality today? Do you identify with a a particular charism in the Church, or a Catholic tradition or devotion?
I think if I were going to be a nun — and evidently I’m not going to be a nun — I would be someone “of the Eucharist.” I am very Eucharistic. I am still crazy about the Mass and Adoration and the Blessed Sacrament. So that’s pretty much my spiritually. And then I’ve had phases with different saints…like St. Therese of Lisieux and various people. And I have a devotion to Mary. It’s very standard in a sense, but so enriching.
As far as my personal charism… as I mention in the book, I wasn’t sure what I should be doing, and whether I should be writing. But at the moment, I feel called to write. I still have the urge to open an orphanage or a soup kitchen, you know, like… I should be doing something more heroic. But I think at this point of time, as a mother, I’m called to write and give God a presence in the world.
Sally Read’s conversion story is called Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story.